Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Nature of the Atonement: Torrance and J.M. Campbell

Torrance’s doctrine of incarnational redemption does not fit neatly into any one of the major theories of atonement that have arisen in the history of Christian theological thought. In fact, Torrance is critical of the “theories of atonement” that have arisen in the history of Western theology. In one way or another, he contends, all these theories operate with an “external way of relating theory and event in the interpretation of Jesus Christ” (Torrance, 1986b:478; cf. below). In contrast to Western theories of the atonement developed in terms of “external” relations between Jesus and God, Torrance develops his doctrine of the atonement from the “internal” consubstantial Father-Son relation and the consubstantial God-human relation “within” the one person of Jesus Christ. Torrance’s view of the atonement is closely related to the “representative theory” or “theory of vicarious repentance” associated with the Scottish pastor and theologian, John McLeod Campbell (1800-1872) (Torrance, 1996c: 287ff). Elements of this view are also found in P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921) and Karl Barth (1886-1968). In this model of atonement vicarious identification is stressed over penal substitution (Bloesch, 2006:157).  

In his Auburn lectures, delivered in the late 1930s, Torrance (2002b:166) describes two “notable and significant attempts” to understand the atonement in modern theology. One is the theology of R.W. Dale, who stressed “the substitutionary work of Christ in his submission to divine judgment and in satisfaction for sin offered on the cross.” The other is the Scottish pastor and theologian, John McLeod Campbell, who stressed “Christ’s vicarious life of obedience to the Father and his atoning suffering in life and death in fulfilment of the love of the Father,” without giving major place to the concept of the “forensic satisfaction” of divine justice at the cross. As Torrance notes, Dale’s approach is regarded by many as nearer the traditional Anselmic concept of atonement with a stress on the aspect of “penal judgment and satisfaction” before the righteous wrath of God. Campbell’s stress, on the other hand, is on the atoning obedience and love of the incarnate Christ. With his “primary emphasis” on Christ’s vicarious life and passion in fulfilling the holy and forgiving love of the Father, Campbell pays relatively little attention to the Anselmic aspect of satisfaction. 

In regard to T.F. Torrance’s doctrine of the atonement, perhaps no theologian has had greater influence than John McLeod Campbell. According to Torrance (1996c:287, 288), McLeod Campbell was deposed from his ministry in the Scottish Kirk because of his doctrine of “universal atonement and pardon,” as well as the doctrine that assurance is “the essence of faith and necessary for salvation,” a teaching set out in his great work of 1856, The Nature of the Atonement (Campbell, 1996). As Torrance (1996c:289, 290) argues, McLeod Campbell was troubled by the “unnatural violence” done to scripture, particularly passages such as John 3:16, 1John 1:2, 1Tim 2:4ff, and Heb 2:9, 17-19, when interpreted according to “logical Calvinism” and its assertion of “particular redemption.” Furthermore, McLeod Campbell was disturbed by the doubt he found among his parishioners in regard to the love of God and the nature of repentance and forgiveness. His congregants lacked assurance of their salvation, for their trust was undermined by current doctrines of atonement and election, which held that only some were chosen to be saved.
For McLeod Campbell, notes Torrance (1996c:291, 294, 295), nothing less than “the very nature of God as love” was at stake, for it is in the face of Jesus Christ, the suffering Saviour, that the true character of God as love is revealed (cf. Jn 3:16; 1Jn 4:8, 16). In the federal theology of the Scottish Kirk, Campbell perceived what he regarded as a dualism, or “division,” between justice and mercy that pitted a merciful, “tender-hearted” Jesus against an angry Father-God. Rather than seeing God as a loving Father who satisfies his justice through the atoning work of his Son, federal theology, according to Campbell, portrayed the “man” Jesus as placating an angry Father God, so that he might finally love the elect. As Torrance argues, the federal theologians thought of God as loving mankind only in response to what Jesus had done and could not understand how, in God, “mercy and justice, love and holiness, grace and judgement, belong intimately and inseparably together.” On the other hand, notes Torrance, McLeod Campbell expounded the atonement, not in “abstract legal terms,” but in the “personal,” “filial” terms of the Father-Son relation. For Campbell, atonement must be understood in recognition of the fact that God provides the atonement; God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Thus, for McLeod Campbell, forgiveness precedes the atonement, for the atonement is “the form of the manifestation of the forgiving love of God, not its cause.” While he appealed to the New Testament and to the Scots Confession, McLeod Campbell’s teaching was regarded as a violation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was the basis on which Scottish pastors took their ordination vows. As Torrance (1996c:289, 290) argues, though McLeod Campbell was deposed from the Kirk, “his teaching had the effect of opening the door wide to fresh biblical and evangelical understanding of cardinal truths of the Christian faith.”
McLeod Campbell’s theology of the atonement was a radical break with the federal theology of the Westminster Confession and a development of older Scottish theology, represented by the “Evangelical Calvinists” [e.g., Thomas Erskine (1788-1870)], the Reformers, and the Greek fathers (Cass, 2008:59, 60). As Cass (2008:89) argues, Campbell’s development of a “Catholic” doctrine grounded in the Triune life of God and a Reformed doctrine of the all-sufficient nature of grace in Christ had a major influence on Torrance’s methodology and soteriology. As Cass notes, Torrance regards McLeod Campbell as one of the greatest witnesses in the history of the Scottish Kirk to the unconditional, all-sufficient, and unlimited nature of the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
A further understanding of McLeod Campbell’s influence on Torrance can be gained by comparing two differing doctrines of God. As Torrance’s younger brother, James (Torrance, J., 1996b:1) argues, the history of Christian thought shows that our doctrine of God shapes our understanding of the atonement and of Christian assurance. If we view God primarily as a lawgiver and judge, with humans created to keep the law, then our doctrine of atonement will portray God as a judge who must be “conditioned into being gracious,” either by human merit or by Christ on the cross, “satisfying” the Father’s conditions, so that God might be gracious to the elect. According to Torrance, this view arises in some forms of scholastic Calvinism. On the other hand, if our basic concept of God is that of “the Triune God of grace who has his being in communion as Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and who has created us to share as sons and daughters in that communion, then our doctrine of atonement will portray a gracious God bringing his loving purpose to fruition. In this view, notes the younger Torrance, “we see the priority of grace over law, the filial over the judicial, and that God is a covenant God of faithfulness, not a contract-God.” As Torrance notes, no theologian saw the effects of these differing concepts of God on the doctrine of atonement and Christian assurance as clearly as did John McLeod Campbell, who “was so passionately concerned to call the Church back to the Triune God of grace” in a land where God had come to be conceived primarily as lawgiver and judge.
Throughout his writings, one of the fundamental differences Torrance sees between these two differing views of God is whether grace is placed before law or whether law is placed before grace (Cass, 2008:95). According to T.F. Torrance (1996c:293), federal Calvinism incorporated a “legal strain” into their teaching on the atonement shaped by the “reign of law.” McLeod Campbell, on the other hand, sought to understand the atonement “in the light of itself,” by moving away from the “logical framework” of double predestination and a narrow conception of particular redemption. Against his contemporaries, who sought to understand the atonement “within the brackets and abstract definitions of their own rationalistic Calvinism,” coupled with their belief that the Westminster Confession was “an exact and complete transcript” of biblical doctrine, argues Torrance, McLeod Campbell made a “methodological decision of quite immense importance” by seeking to understand the atonement in its own light and in accordance with its own intrinsic nature, thereby refusing to separate method and content. We note that McLeod Campbell’s methodology, with its integration of method and content according to the nature of reality is, of course, in strict harmony with the kataphysical method of Torrance’s own scientific theology.
As Torrance (1996c:298) argues, McLeod Campbell clearly “asserts the primacy of the filial relation over the legal relation, of grace over law.” For Torrance, as Cass (2008:96) notes, Campbell’s “primary theological move” was to “align the character of God the Father totally with Jesus Christ as revealed in the economy of salvation.” In locating the revelation of God in the economy of salvation as revealed in Jesus Christ, Torrance (1996c:301) believes that Campbell calls for a recasting of the traditional Scottish Calvinist doctrine of “penal substitution” by returning to the teaching of Athanasius (Contra Arianos, 4.6), who regarded the Godward-humanward and humanward-Godward movement of mediation as a two-fold, but unitary, movement of mediation occurring “within,” not external to, the incarnate constitution of the mediator. Finally, McLeod Campbell’s emphasis on the Father-Son relation over the legal aspects of atonement appears to be a return to Athanasius (Contra Arianos 1.34; cf. Torrance, 1988a:49 n. 3), who argued that “it would be more godly and true to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.” To be sure, Torrance clearly follows both Athanasius and McLeod Campbell in his oft-repeated assertion that there is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ (Torrance, 1988a:135; 1990:71; 1996c:294).
According to Cass (2008:59, 88, 89), John McLeod Campbell had more influence on Torrance than any other theologian, particularly in regard to McLeod Campbell’s understanding of the Father-Son relation, Christ’s condemning sin in the flesh in his “active” and passive” obedience, the integration of ontological and forensic metaphors of salvation, and the doctrine of the Judge judged in our place (cf. Barth, 1957d:211ff). Noting the “enormous influence” of Barth, Cass argues that, at certain points, Torrance rejects Bath’s soteriological position in favour of the Greek fathers, Calvin, and McLeod Campbell.


  1. Great stuff. A nice clear explanation. Thank you, Martin.

  2. Thank you for this, Martin. You have your degree from my Universtiy in South Africa. Glad to see it's credentials abroad. Blessings.


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